Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process

Article excerpt

Herbst, Susan (1998). Reading Public Opinion: How Political Actors View the Democratic Process. Chicago: Univerity of Chicago Press, Paperback, $16.

In our political climate of politicians' revelations and citizens' reactions, journalism educators and students need to understand public opinion and how political players interpret it. Herbst says public opinion is a "contested and malleable concept [that] is badly conceptualized, poorly measured by important political actors, and sometimes ignored entirely." Her study attempts to define how public opinion is constructed from democratic models, opinion-gathering methodologies, leaders' rhetoric about citizen reports, and journalists' reports on public affairs.

She interviewed 20 Illinois state legislature staffers, 10 party activists drawn randomly from lists of convention delegations, and 11 journalists from news services or major newspapers that covered Illinois politics. In addition, she used survey data of more that 500 Democratic and Republican 1996 national convention delegates.

The introduction and first chapter present conflicting ideas of the construction on public opinion followed by three chapters devoted to what policy experts, partisan activists, and journalists think about public opinion, media, and the legislative process.

The final chapter contrasts lay theory with the democratic theory of sociologists and political scientists.

The legislative staffers generally saw public opinion as interest group opinion because interest groups can "crystallize nebulous public sentiment" (p. 53). Staffers also defined media content not simply as a conduit for public opinion but as public opinion itself. …